Novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras Talks about Nuance, Imperialism and Empathy in the Age of Trump

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Novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras Talks about Nuance, Imperialism and Empathy in the Age of Trump

When Ingrid Rojas Contreras was ten years old, her mother hired a maid—a fourteen-year-old girl whose family had been displaced by war. During the girl’s five years of employment, she secretly joined the country’s oldest left-wing guerrilla army—something Contreras’s family learned because the girl was ordered to kidnap Ingrid and her sister. “She let us free at the last minute,” Contreras told me, “and suffered severe consequences.”

This series of events laid the groundwork for Contreras’s autobiographical debut novel The Fruit of the Drunken Tree, due from Doubleday next fall. “It’s a story of political conflict born to the lives of children,” she said, “and the power held in the hands of the most unlikely.”

Contreras is also working on a memoir about her grandfather, a curandero whose powers are aptly summarized by the book’s title: The Man Who Could Move Clouds. “The memoir touches on extinguished native points of view, the way they survive, and the idea of magical inheritance as it has rippled down the generations in my family,” she said.

In Colombia, politics are part of every story, she added. Even if there’s a one-on-one conversation taking place, politics add a third character. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the United States isn’t that different. “There’s an assault on so many different fronts and on so many different groups of people,” Contreras (a participant in Bay Area Writers Resist, and co-founder of resistance initiative “100 Days of Action”) explained. “It’s starting to feel like Colombia in that sense, where [politics] are kind of like the weather. Even if you’re having conversations not about that, it’s in the background.”

Paste caught up with Contreras to discuss her work and its relationship to the current political forecast as the next installment of its series on the role of art in resistance.

Paste: When discussing your work organizing the “100 Days of Action” counter-narrative, you spoke of your desire to give people an artistic call to action as opposed to a political one (like calling a representative). That’s an interesting distinction, since art is so often political. Do you have any kind of conscious call to action as you work, or do you think art is inherently separate from outcomes?

Ingrid Rojas: That’s a really good question and I have been thinking about that a lot. [With] novels and stories, I tend to think the service to the community is the act of empathy. Fiction and memoir are strategically situated to tell full stories, to build worlds from the ground up, providing the education we cannot even imagine needs giving.

[I have] family members who voted Trump and are against “illegals” (as they call them). Besides assuming I was undocumented (as an employed, free-traveling individual this confounds me), they do not, I found out, even understand the most basic concepts of an immigrant visa; as later they asked if the occasion when I could not enter England due to having the wrong visa, whether that was not like the immigrant ban enacted by Trump.

It seems to me there are so many misunderstandings about how immigrants get here, what the process is, the hierarchy of papers. Those are the problems I’m seeing with people around me so I am satisfied that I’m addressing those just by telling the specifics of the journey, while also trying to construct the emotional depths of what that journey would entail.

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Rojas told Paste: “I’ve been dressing up as an alien as a way to appropriate the government’s legal language for immigrants (in my case I am a permanent resident alien).” Photo by Victoria Heilweil

Paste: I read your piece “On Not Writing for White People,” which was about language as it relates to a sense of self, but also as it relates to audience and control. The line that stood out to me was this: “Trying to please that Northern desire to pin everything down with bouts of anesthetics and empirical logic.” Could you speak to that a bit more?

Rojas: There are so many things that we are loose about in South America; my memoir is more about that subject. When I say my grandfather was curandero and could move clouds, this would sound familiar to Colombians. They would think it’s a unique story but they wouldn’t necessarily be surprised by it.

When I tell it to Americans, I get suspicious looks. One person tried to explain to me how wind works. She was like, “Oh, I explain this all the time to children. Let me explain how the wind could move clouds.” It’s just a very different worldview—a worldview that’s unaware of, or maybe talking down to, other worldviews. I think that kind of outlook can make stories suffer.

When you come to the U.S., it puts you in this position where you have to be a historian of your culture and your time and you have to defend it against that kind of imperial worldview that we often put on a pedestal. We think: This must be the only way that we look at things and understand things and everybody else is wrong. If you go into writing having as your audience someone who is outside of the worldview that you’re trying to explain, it puts you in a defensive position instead of just writing what you see or what you’re interested in.

Paste: Do you think that imperialistic worldview ties back to the current state of the country?

Rojas: Maybe an imperial worldview so sure of itself and its imminent status on an imagined hierarchy is in special danger of misunderstandings while assuming it understands. [And] I think, yes, there is a desire for a straight story and a very simple story. The government seems to be very interested in creating stories that flatten out any nuance that any issue might have by putting things into black and white categories. Someone is or is not a terrorist; there’s nothing in between.

I think that the stories where someone can move clouds or can read the future or maybe someone (like the girl in my novel) is forced into doing an act because she is threatened and her family is threatened—all those things almost don’t have room to breathe. I think immigration and stories of other cultures force that oxygen.

Paste: And you said you’ve been working on this book for five years. It takes a lot of time to create that nuance. The pace of politics and other forms of media, it’s so different. Everything feels more real-time and reactionary; everything’s a hot take. I’m curious how you think about the pace of art and how you balance the sense of urgency people are feeling now with the need to slow down and give things oxygen.

Rojas: One of the things that make artists artists is the ability to slow down and observe what’s around us. It’s easier for us to do that when there’s not a lot of things happening. It exercises our muscles when there’s a great upheaval.

I think it’s interesting how some writers are able to turn that urgency into an artistic urgency where you try to address the needs that you see through the work that you’re making. Sometimes that’s not even a direct relationship. But I’ve heard people say that the failure of the country was a failure of empathy or a failure of understanding. In that sense, even just writing a story that provides an exercise of empathy seems like you’re already doing what is needed.

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